By Serita Braxton
When I first arrived in Berlin from the US, I was completely overwhelmed and confused by the German healthcare system. I knew that I was required to be covered but I didn’t know the difference between public or private healthcare or whether I was eligible for either. Growing up, I was privileged enough to go from my mom’s healthcare to my own coverage provided by my employer as an adult. Figuring out which plan to choose or how much coverage I should have was never something I had to think about.
Whenever I felt sick, I went to the doctor. Whether I had an unexplained rash on my leg, pain in my hand, or needed to see an OB-GYN or mental health provider, I was able to make an appointment online and usually be seen within a week. My doctor would usually take a look at me, run some tests (also covered by my insurance), then write me a prescription that I could pick up in the same building or at some pharmacy conveniently located near my home. Life was but a well medicated dream. Until I arrived in Berlin.
Since it is required to have proof of healthcare in order to receive a residence permit, after a few Google searches, I signed up for a private insurance plan. All of the coverage information was in German so I had no idea what services it actually covered but if it was good enough for the immigration office, it was good enough for me.
That nonchalant attitude wore off after I realized I may actually want to visit a doctor at some point in my life. For the first year I lived in Berlin I didn’t visit a doctor once, I figured that since my private insurance was so cheap, it probably didn’t cover anything so I would have to pay out-of-pocket for every visit. So I endured an unexplained, painful ache in my foot for months, dealt with every cold or flu symptom with medicine I had stocked up on from the US, and treaded carefully when illegally crossing the street or walking on slippery surfaces.
Finally, the time came for me to seek medical assistance. After four car accidents over my life (none of which were my fault, just unlucky I guess) I’ve dealt with chronic back pain and headaches. With my friends concerned by the the cracking of my neck and back when I stretched, they pushed me to see a doctor for physical therapy.
As I headed towards the receptionist desk, I was anxious about if they would even accept my insurance. I silently handed the woman behind the desk my insurance card and waited for her to show me the exit. Instead she kindly asked me to fill out paperwork and have a seat. So far, so good. Eventually I was called to see the doctor and explained to him my symptoms. He had me do a couple of stretches then quickly gave me a prescription for physical therapy. Maybe the healthcare system in Germany wasn’t so scary after all!
That was until I got a bill for the visit in the mail. Then three more bills for each of the physical therapy appointments I went to. I didn’t understand. I was paying for private health insurance and had to pay for all of the services that followed? What was the point of being covered? After sending my insurance company an inquiry, they told me I had to mail them copies of medical bills and then they would reimburse me or the doctor based on my coverage. So I had to do all of the work – and pay for postage. This process was too complicated for me so I swore off any more doctors visits.
After a year and a half in Berlin, I got a full time job that finally allowed me to afford public health insurance. I was sure that visiting the doctor would now be less stressful. Except that I had to call dozens of doctor’s offices for one that offered services in english, then I had to wait over a month to be seen. On the day of my appointment it took 30 minutes to check in then another hour to be seen.
That visit was because I have rheumatoid arthritis, an auto-immune disease where my body attacks my joints and causes pain, swelling, and stiffness. I had run out of my medicine from the US and needed more to keep my body moving. I expected him to write me another prescription but instead he suggested that I do acupuncture. It would’ve been a nice alternative, but again, I would have to wait over a month for my first appointment. There was no remedy offered in the meantime and my joints still hurt as I type this.
While I’m very grateful to have health insurance – a lot of people can’t afford the high premiums so they end up going without coverage and their ailments go untreated – the healthcare process could use an upgrade. For such a progressive city with a growing international population Berlin could use more doctors that provide assistance in english, the ability to book appointments online, and an open dialogue about what sort of treatments the patient wants. Until then, I’ll just keep Googling “home remedies” until my next appointment in two months.